During the following weeks, they gathered more children, until they had twenty-six lodgers in the house. Most of them were well-behaved and listened to directions but you always had one or two kids, usually among the oldest, that refused to obey any instruction, even for their own safety, and claimed none of the adults could understand what they had gone through. Cassian was seriously torn between the wish to shake them a bit and his own desire for privacy. He doubted that his most stubborn wards would ever care about their guardians’ sad stories, anyway. Jyn, however, proved less patient than him and when their oldest boy, about fourteen years old, snapped at them one more time that ‘no one knew what he had done to survive’, she exploded almost as fiercely as her father’s creation.
“Perhaps if you talked to us, we would know, and we could help! And now, you stop acting as if you were the only victim of this war! People here were already at it when you were not even a spark in your parents’ eyes, so don’t treat us as if we’re all idiots with not an inkling about what happens on occupied planets, thank you very much!”
The boy had probably expected to be scolded by a taller and bigger adult, and the surprise left him speechless for a moment. He made himself scarce for two days before offering his apologies, much to Jyn’s satisfaction.
“Are you sure that yelling was the only solution?” Cassian inquired after that.
“Yes. You taught me that a difficult life was not an excuse for being an asshole, remember?”
He conceded the point, though Jyn had rectified some of his opinions as well along the years.
They received an unexpected visitor in the person of Luke Skywalker some weeks later. The younger man looked much better than the last time they had seen him, and had found a new occupation as well.
“Looking for old Jedi archives, you say? You want to restart the Order?” Jyn asked.
Something like that,” he said. “Force-sensitives, particularly of a high level, need to learn at least the basics about the Force, so they don’t trigger a catastrophe each time they use their abilities. I found some relics of the old Temple on Coruscant, but I suspect that Palpatine may have just kept some pieces as trophies, and burnt the rest.”
“So you’re on a quest to find more?” Cassian wondered with a half-smile.
“I’m afraid so. I’ll try to teach what I learned along the way. None of your little wards is Force-sensitive, by the way.”
“And thank all the gods for that,” Jyn groaned. “It’s hard enough as it is. You’ve already found a potential student?”
“Well, perhaps when my nephew is old enough… if he’s interested...” Luke confessed, smiling brightly.
“Told you there was a kid on the way,” Jyn muttered to Cassian, almost causing him to facepalm, much to Luke’s amusement.
He remained there for the rest of the day, discussing with their assistants and taking notes, possibly with a future academy in mind. He made them both promise to contact him should one of their wards ever start lifting stones or levitating in the garden.
“You can levitate with the Force?”
Cassian could scarcely believe it.
“Yeah. Right. That would have been useful when we tried to pick the archives on Scarif… When you come back, stay a bit longer. I’d like to tell you some things about the Guardians of the Whills on Jedha. That could maybe give you some ideas for your school… when you open it.”
“That would be an honor.”
They had barely gotten used to dealing with their little tribe of children that Mon Mothma summoned them again for another mission.
“If you still have room in your little haven,” she said, “there are some children that require your attention on Arkanis. The planet finally surrendered, after months of siege, and many were left behind or lost in the chaos that followed.”
Cassian made a quick calculation.
“We can take five more, perhaps. But we'll need another caretaker to help us.”
“I'll make sure that you have the staff you need,” the former senator assured. “Children ranging from three to fourteen,” she added, “not necessarily orphaned, but separated from their parents. Some of them would not stay indefinitely with you.”
Jyn nodded with assurance.
“It's all right. I'd be glad to see them all back with their family, no matter which side they fought for.”
Mothma smiled warmly. Their relationship had spectacularly improved after Jyn had joined the Alliance for good; Cassian sometimes wondered if their leader was not overcompensating for the idiots who still resented Jyn’s presence because of her father.
They arrived above Arkanis to find the planet still surrounded by a massive blockade. Several Mon Calamari cruisers were looming above the rainy planet and squadrons of fighters came and went to and from the surface. Jyn put her waterproof coat on as their shuttle started the descent towards the city of Scaparus, as she had heard the place was just barely less damp than Eadu.
As she found out when they landed, it was a slight exaggeration. A continuous drizzle was falling from a low, grey sky, but it had nothing to do with the downpour and thunderstorm they had faced during the raid on Eadu. Still, combined with the rather chilly temperature, the effect was rather unpleasant. A speeder was waiting for them, the driver explaining the situation as they left the city, heading towards the local academy.
“One for officers,” the man said. “Old Brendol Hux was training the new generation of Imperial captains here. We’ve heard plenty of things about his methods, you know. Something about the weaker kids being… weeded out, so to speak. So don’t be surprised if some of the children are a bit… weird.”
Child soldiers… Well, this at least, Cassian knew like the back of his hand.
The academy was a sprawling, yet austere building located at the foot of a mountain range, surrounded by thick woods. Cassian grimaced as his boots nearly remained stuck into the mud. He heard Jyn grumbling at his side, trying to wrap her coat tighter around herself to avoid being drenched. She was the first one inside, almost running to the main hall.
Two Alliance soldiers were waiting there and greeted her politely when she presented her accreditation.
“This way, ma’am,” one of them said, pointing to a door on their right. “We kept them all together so far. They won’t fight. Well, I think so, they didn’t do anything funny since we brought them.”
Jyn nodded, walking resolutely towards the door, the same way she would go into mission briefings.
With a little shock, she found herself facing what looked like a sea of children, boys and girls, with blond, or brown, or black hair, even a little spot of orange in the back of the crowd. Taking a deep breath, Jyn took a step forward and greeted them. Some kept their head down, refusing to look at her, others replied shyly, not knowing what to do with her. They could not ignore that she was serving in the Alliance, not with the coat and more or less formal uniform she wore under it. Finally, one of the oldest boys gathered his courage and asked:
“Who are you? And why are you here, ma’am?”
“My name is Jyn Erso. I used to be an operative for the Alliance, and I retired from active duty several months ago. I am currently working on a safe house for orphans and abandoned children along with my partner Captain Andor. You will all be transported to another facility, since this one is too damaged to support a continued occupation. Several spots are still free in my safe house, should you wish to live there until either your family is found or another is willing to adopt you.”
“Where is it?” another child, a brown-haired girl with a hook nose, inquired.
“It’s on Takodana. Lots of lakes and forests and far from the Core and the Colonies.”
“How many of us could go with you?” a third child questioned.
“No more than five,” Jyn admitted. “There are already twenty-six children hosted there.”
They were treating this very matter-of-factly, more like adults than teenagers. She felt as if she was looking at herself in a time mirror, transported some ten years prior. As she pondered that, the children began talking among themselves, trying to decide who would go or not.
“You can think about it while our medic examines you,” she suggested.
They nodded almost as one, then calmly followed here outside, towards the infirmary. Cassian joined them on their way there, hoping he did not look too much like a mother duck with her ducklings following obediently. They lined up against a wall, waiting for the medic to call them. Jyn and Cassian left the room, leaving the medical team to do their job.
“They’re so… silent,” she commented. “It’s rather uncanny.”
“Imperial discipline,” he said. “Though I must admit it has its uses. So far, they’ve cooperated remarkably well. But I suspect the oldest ones would be able to start a fight, provided they’ve been brainwashed enough.”
“If their headmaster was training them to kill their weaker schoolmates… rather likely,” she agreed grimly.
They spent the following hours exploring the academy, or what was left of it after the siege and fighting. The stores were almost completely depleted. The kids had probably not seen a full meal for days, if not weeks. They interrupted the visit when Cassian’s comlink biped, signaling the medical team was done with the examinations.
Back in the medbay, the chief medic signed her report and handed it to Cassian. He let a long sigh out. He had known it would not be easy, but not to that extent. All the children suffered from undernourishment after the siege, and the former pupils of the Academy showed various symptoms of mistreatment and high levels of stress, even the youngest. The medic mentioned sprains, bruises, broken bones, that were compatible with her suspicions of generalized abuse. Getting them to trust the adults now in charge would be tricky, at best.
As they turned towards the children, five of them broke from the group and stood in front of them in a perfect line.
“We discussed with the others, and we would like to come with you,” the hook-nosed girl from before told them. “Also,” she added, “you’ll want to take this one as well, else no one’s going to get him away,” pointing to a small, red-haired boy sitting by himself on a cot.
“Who is he?” Jyn asked.
“Armitage Hux. The Commandant’s bastard.”
“Old Hux got him on a kitchen girl. We haven’t seen her for weeks, so we suppose she’s dead or she ran away. The Commandant certainly did.”
They exchanged a glance. Of course they were going to take him.
The boy did not protest when Jyn took him by the hand; he just stared at her with large, blue-green eyes, the color somewhat similar to her own. He went meekly enough, but she could see how tense he was. And he was, what? Five at most?
They left quickly after that, their six wards pressing their faces against the transparasteel of the viewports as soon as the shuttle left the atmosphere.
Once they reached the house on Takodana, Cassian gathered all the other children and the adult staff in the main hall and stood on the stairs for a short speech.
“We’ve just come back from Arkanis with six new wards. As you know, this planet was an Imperial bastion, so yes, those are, or rather were, the children of Imperial officers and soldiers. This is to warn you, all of you, that the first hint of bullying or discrimination against them will get the culprit kicked out of this house faster than they can say ‘Jabba’. If you don’t like these rules, now is the right time to signal it. Nothing? Good. The rules are now fully effective.”
He hopped down from the stairs and nodded to Jyn.
“Nice speech,” she said. “Let’s hope it will be enough. I’d rather not sent any of them away.”
“Me neither. But unfortunately, bigots come in every size and age, so...”
His threats seemed to work, however, as the six children they had picked on Arkanis settled in the community without apparent difficulties.
If inside the walls things progressed relatively smoothly, in the outside world all was not a bed of roses. They had to find private funds for their safe house (Jyn refused to call it an orphanage) as the Senate had other, most urgent things to consider (the fact they hosted orphans from Imperial worlds had yet to become public knowledge, though). Cassian was pleased, however, when Mon Mothma was one of the first to make a donation. Organa sent credits as well, though she had her hands full with the relocation of her compatriots who had escaped the destruction of their homeworld.
Some parents, having heard about their association, came looking for their children. Republicans or Imperials, Cassian thought, they all had the same expression on their faces when they stood on the doorstep: nervous, hopeful, tired. Most left empty-handed and heart-broken, the probability of finding their child among the two dozens Jyn and Cassian hosted almost non-existent. Whatever their political opinions, it always pained Cassian to watch them go with their hopes dashed, mourning the loss of their family
One case in particular made the former Captain both furious and saddened: the thin, red-haired boy they had picked on Arkanis, who remained in their care, day after day, though it was well-known that his father was still alive and free.
“Why don't we keep him?” Jyn suggested one morning at breakfast. “You know, like… More permanently?”
Cassian raised an eyebrow; he had not been expecting that.
“You never mentioned adoption before, but... we could at least give it a try. Chosen families didn't turn out that bad for us both, right? So it could work for him as well.”
“Let's ask the little guy what he thinks about it, fine?”
As usual, Armitage was reading under his favorite tree when they found him. If left to his own device, the child would probably do nothing but read everything he could reach, and then ask for more.
“Hello there. Can we have a little chat?”
The boy nodded, observing them warily. They both sat on the grass, not too close so they would not prompt him to move away.
“We have some news for you, dear,” Jyn announced.
“Someone is coming to take me?” he asked hopefully.
His tentative smile immediately waned when Jyn shook her head.
“So you're going to send me away because you can’t afford to keep me,” he assumed.
The two adults exchanged a worried glance and Cassian hurried to explain as the child began to rise from the ground to leave.
“No, no, no, niño, that's not what we meant. In fact, it's the opposite.”
Little Armitage raised an eyebrow, something he had probably copied from his father and looked at Cassian as if to say 'Well, prove it now.'
“In truth,” Jyn went on, “we wanted to ask you if you would like to remain here, not as a ward, but with us as your... well, your new parents.”
The child remained silent for a long moment, observing them alternatively, obviously waiting for the moment they would start laughing and say 'Big joke!'. Since the other shoe did not drop, he seemed to accept that they were completely serious about their offer.
“You want me to stay?” he asked nonetheless.
“Of course we do! We would not suggest it otherwise!”
The boy blinked several times, his eyes watering quickly. He was trying not to cry in front of the adults but his resolve vanished soon and tears began rolling on his pale cheeks. Instinctively, Cassian hugged the child to his chest, rocking him gently as Jyn patted his hair and back, telling him over and over that everything was all right, that they would take care of him for as long as he needed it, that he would never have to leave again…
They managed to calm him after a while and carried him back to his bedroom, his small hands still clutching Cassian’s jacket. The former spy felt a knot in his chest as well as a strange warmth spreading through him, not able to decided between crying and laughing, but with his boy in his arms and Jyn by his side, for the first time in a long while, he felt at peace.